The Quest for the Ultimate Flake Pipe: Myths, Mysteries and Metrics

by Mark Irwin


Case N° 130225

by Charles Mundungus





     A few years ago I read a discussion of a lightweight specialty pipe made by a certain Irish pipe maker which one pipeman referred to it as “the ideal flake pipe.” Well, I’ve smoked flakes my whole life and it got me to wondering: could there be such a thing as the ideal flake pipe? The perfect flake smoking instrument, the ne plus ultra of kapnismological flake engineering? The first thing I did (of course) was save up to get a pipe exactly like the one this fellow was describing. I’m sure you can guess the outcome: disillusionment, disappointment, disenchantment in discovering that not only was this pipe not the ideal flake pipe—not my ideal flake pipe, anyway—but it didn’t perform nearly as well in that service as many of the pipes already in my regular rotation! Okay. So much for “ideal” flake pipes.


     But I couldn’t stop thinking about what contributes to making one pipe more suitable than another for flakes. Is the notion of a “flake pipe” just a myth? Another of the tall tales pipemen like to swap and swear to? Or is there a definable ‘metric’ than can be used in selecting the right pipe for the right flake?—a measure that could be used to gauge the impact or effectiveness of some quantifiable component of operation or performance? As I thought about it, a “Flake Pipe Metric” began to take shape: 


     - What makes one pipe more suitable than another for smoking flake tobaccos?

     - How does the shape or chamber geometry of a pipe impact the performance of flake tobaccos?

     - What effect (if any) does the kind of flake tobacco have in determining a suitable flake pipe?

     - What effect (if any) does the method of preparing and packing have in determining a suitable flake pipe?


Of course I had my own ideas and theories, but generally I find these so idiosyncratic, tangled and wrong-headed as to generate hysterical laughter (from those who care about me) or stares of incredulity and disbelief (from those who don’t). So I wisely asked four pipemen whose opinions I value and respect—men who are not at all afraid of telling me I’m a moron and should up and smoke my pipe instead of trying to talk about it: Rick Newcombe, Neill Archer Roan, Rainer Kockegey-Lorenz and Luca di Piazza. Here’s what they had to say about my proposed Flake Pipe Metric:


Rick Newcombe:

I prefer a normal or small diameter pipe. A chimney shape can be ideal. Occasionally I'll smoke this tobacco is a larger pipe, but generally not. If the bowl is too big, I find that flakes can feel like they are burning a little hot after a while, but in a small, or even medium-sized bowl (between a Dunhill Group 4 and 5), they are perfect. The tobacco stays lit, and the flavor is enhanced. I'm not sure why the latter is the case.


Neil Archer Roan:

I certainly have my preferences, and they are driven mostly by my desire to minimize the nicotine’s impact on me from the tobacco while maximizing the flavor dimensions that I appreciate. Personally, when I smoke Virginia flakes, I prefer a smaller diameter bowl, the chamber geometry of which is about twice as long as it is wide. I find this geometry suitable when I'm smoking a Virginia flake with a significant amount of mature, red Virginias. When I fold and stuff flakes, I prefer a slightly larger diameter bowl that is not quite as tall.


Rainer Kockegey-Lorenz (aka RaiKo):

I don’t think there is any rule about what chamber dimension will produce the ideal flake experience, just a lot of personal preference, or what I like to call the OCFDFR—“Oral Cavity Fluid Dynamics Resonance Factor.” While I certainly can’t smoke flakes in 24-25mm tobacco chambers, I’ve read that others, like Greg Pease, can. And for me, 19mm width or less for Latakia flake blends is simply a no-go. I find that my Cavicchis go well with Va’s and flakes in general, but this experience is not necessarily transferrable to other pipe smokers. And the whole issue is complicated by the constitution of the tobacco, not to mention the method of packing. So I think the best solution is to set aside any thought of dogmatism, and settle for searching for one’s own solution to which weed goes best in which pipe. What could be more fun? All roads lead to Rome, after all.


Luca di Piazza:

I would say that there is no such thing an “ideal flake pipe.” Each pipe smoker is different and smokes in a different way. It would be more accurate to say there is a pipe that complements the way you smoke flake tobacco. But even saying this, I must qualify it by saying that it depends on what you mean by “flake tobacco".

     Flakes were originally made for easy transportation and packing. In my mind I always envision the flake user as a sailor from the era of the great wooden Man-O-Wars or clipper ships, someone who had only a few possessions and little space in which to store them. He probably cut the flake into smaller pieces before packing his pipe. Sometimes I smoke like my mythical sailor, cutting the flake into smaller pieces, with no regard for the kind of pipe I’m using. But sometimes I smoke the flake as it is, without cutting or crumbling. And I will admit that in this latter case, the best smoking experiences I’ve had have been with smaller and deeper chambers, with the tobacco packed very loosely, without pressing.

     For Rick, Neil and myself, the answer to the question of whether we can talk about a “flake pipe” would seem to be “Yes, and the odds are that you have one or more of them in your rotation.” While Rainer would say “No,” even he concedes that such a pipe can be found within the parameters of each pipe-smoker’s experience.  Luca suggests we have the cart before the horse, about which more later. Significantly, however, we all agreed on the importance of three considerations when smoking flakes: 


     - the pipe’s chamber geometry

     - the kind of flake being smoked, and

     - the way the flake is prepared for smoking—folded, rubbed out, crumbled


     All of my respondents totally ignored the shape part of the second question (“how does the shape . . . impact the performance of flake tobaccos?”). This leads me to believe that shape is probably the last thing you need concern yourself with, although I know I’m going to have to say something about it before I get to the end of this article, since it was the first thing I thought about.


     But to the second part of the design question, everyone remarked that the pipe’s chamber dimensions are in some way significant, smaller chambers being preferred above larger ones. I first noticed this correlation of chamber size-to-flavor experience with Virginia flakes in one of my favorite Peterson System shapes, the legendary 309, a straight-sided billiard with an average chamber capacity of around 18.5mm x 40.5mm. This translates into a ratio of about 1 : 2.2 (1 wide by 2.2 deep). Later on I found that with Virginia and VaPer flakes the bowl can be a little bigger in diameter (up to 20mm)  and several millimeters taller (up to 48mm) and achieve fairly spectacular results. Much  more height or width, however, will set off a nicotine bomb—which can be pleasant or decidedly not, depending on your tolerance for “Vitamin N.” The important thing here, as Rainer suggests, is simply to be aware of what works in your own smoking experience.


     When I asked Claudio Cavicchi to make a Virginia flake pipe for me (see last blog and picture at top of this one), I wanted to experiment with what I thought might be my ideal shape and chamber size for Virginia flake: an 18mm x 41mm (1 : 2.3) Hungarian / Oom Paul, designed loosely after the first pipe he ever cut. Claudio agreed to it (bless his heart), but with the fitful comment, “I can’t even get my finger down that chamber!”  I’m a good five inches shorter than Claudio, so while it’s a bit squeezy, my smaller fingers can navigate the narrower chamber, and so far—I’m still breaking it in—it confirms the collective wisdom being presented here that a chamber geometry of 1 : 2.3 or a little taller works extremely well for Virginia flakes1.


     I told you I’d have to stop and talk about shapes. I confess  my bias for the ideal, even Platonic Virginia flake pipe shape comes from that straight-sided #309 billiard, which can be thought of as a “short stack.” But it didn’t stop there. It led me in turn to think about shapes rarely cut these days, classic Oom Paul / Hungarians like this one:




A Strawberry Wood Classic Oom-Paul



At 18mm x 48mm (1 : 2.6), this 1950s-era Peterson Shamrock looks like it was manufactured for no other reason than to take 3 flakes of FVF and forget about folding them, just roll them together and plunkin they go, no waste no cut no crumble.  For whatever arcane reasons of fashion and taste, the classic Oom Paul / Hungarian shape seems to have fallen off the charts by the late 1950s and early 1960s, surfacing only in its neoclassical Italian interpretations since then. I’ve heard the steep drilling angle subjects them to greater risk of burnout, but that may just be another pipe smoker’s myth.


     Before moving into a discussion of the final criterion of the “Flake Pipe Metric,”  I’d like to put forth a hypothesis that would benefit by your hitting “Comment” at the bottom of this page: have you ever noticed that most factory pipes of today and yesterday can be divided into two broad chamber categories? There’s one that I would call the “Standard Virginia Bowl” (SVB) with a 1 : 2 ratio, usually around 18.5mm to 20.5mm wide by 37 to 41mm deep. It’s not that this size of bowl can’t be used for English/Balkans, just that this 1 : 2.3 ratio seems ideal in keeping the Virginia sweet, cool, and flavorful. The other chamber category I call the “Standard English Bowl” (SEB) and it’s shorter and wider, more of a pot shape. The classic ratio seems to be about 1 : 1.6, typically 21mm to 22.5mm wide by 35.5 to 38mm deep. I don’t smoke enough burley to know which category to place it, or whether it has a standard bowl geometry all its own, although in my own experience with burley flakes like Dockworker, Edgeworth Sliced, and HH Old Dark Fired, I almost always use a smaller bowl than my “SVB.” Again, it’s not that you can’t smoke Virginia or VaPer in an “SEB” bowl, just that the flavor will be dissipated and a little hotter. At least that’s my experience. What’s yours?


     (And this brings up another subject that’s sure to raise the ire of many a pipeman: why are most of the artisan pipes being made with such monster-sized bowls? I’m sure just the accusation will raise a few smoker’s hackles, but I really am curious, because Virginias and VaPers just don’t seem to behave very well in such cavernous spaces for many pipemen. Why don’t they make more traditional-sized bowls? Again, please hit “Comment” if you know the answer. Our operators are standing by.)

     So to the final two components of the metric, about the kind of flake and method of preparation. Luca says these should be our first considerations in choosing a pipe for flakes. The tobacco’s strength, flavor and method used for its preparation and packing are what should determine the best pipe for the job.


     Before receiving Luca’s answer, I looked in vain to the wisdom of the elder generations of pipe smokers. While Larus Bros & Co may have been marketing Edgeworth Sliced since 1903, no one seems to have thought much about flakes one way or the other until our own Golden Age of Pipe-Smoking. Maybe there just weren’t that many flakes on the market. Or maybe, as we’re finding in most other areas of current concern in our hobby, our forefathers just didn’t care much about it one way or the other, stuffing any old gob of plug into whatever NDS (Nicotine Delivery System) was handy. Even Robert F. Winans’ landmark book The Pipe Smoker’s Tobacco Book (1977) has nothing to say about flakes.


     My own experience with flakes began almost as soon as I began smoking back in the late 70s, first with the superb MacBaren Navy Flake, a sliced burley cavendish, but also with Bengal Slices—touted to be the flake version of the original Balkan Sobranie.  I wish I could tell you that I’ve spent a lifetime experimenting with the best methods for preparing and packing them, but that’s sadly not the case. Today, the flakes in my rotation today consist of Penzance, Samuel Gawith’s Full Virginia Flake (plus the infrequent bowl of 1792 and HH Old Dark Fired) and McClelland’s incomparable Blackwoods Flake and Dark Star. I’d add HU-Tobacco’s incredible Dockworker, a Malawi Burley to the lineup, but it’s so tough to get here in the States that I save it for special occasions.


     I mention the spectrum of my own tobacco pilgrimage only to allow you to consider your experience against mine and calibrate accordingly. Broadly speaking, flakes come in three varieties, right?—English/Balkans, Virginia/VaPers, and Burleys. The English/Balkans of my past and present experience don’t perform like the Virginia/VaPers and Burleys, usually (like Penzance) crumbling in the effort of lifting the slices from the tin. That being the case, I don’t find there are any special chamber dimensions that result in a preferred flake experience, and am content with “Standard English Bowls” or larger artisanal chamber sizes. Virginia and Burley flakes, however, are much stiffer than English / Balkans, and don’t as a rule crumble at the touch. For these flakes, after a suitable period of drying, packing seems to necessitate cutting, rubbing, slicing, folding or rolling, and whenever these operations are involved, chamber geometry begins to play significantly in the flavor experience.


     So much for the mysteries, myths and metrics of flake pipes.  What’s your experience? Illuminate me. Illuminate your fellow pipemen. Hit the “Comment” button below. 





59 pipes in current rotation
17 unsmoked pipes
Average time spent daily looking at pipes: 06 minutes
Average time spent daily thinking about pipes: Now & Zen
Average time spent daily smoking pipes: 2 hrs, 1 min


1 Incidentally, this may also be the world’s first Chubby Oom Paul—not only being “pleasantly plump” but a very comfortable hands-free smoker. Its chubby size also allows it to sit, when asked politely. 

Cavicchi |